Taking Gurdjieff Seriously
How should the Gurdjieff Work proceed in the particular conditions of the 21st Century?
The Gurdjieffian Vision
In July of 1924, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff nearly died when he and his automobile collided with a tree. It took months for him to fully recover consciousness. When he finally did, he constated with dismay that a long period of convalescence lay ahead, and that during this period, without himself at the helm, the results of the previous three years of exhausting effort—escaping from the Russian Revolution with the core members of his group and relocating the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man to Paris—would be totally unravelled. He formally closed the Institute and began a new work.
“That institution [Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man] by the way no longer exists, and I find it both necessary and opportune, chiefly for the purpose of pacifying certain types from various countries, to make the categorical declaration here and now that I have liquidated it completely and forever.”
First Series, Chapter 48, p. 1187
“First of all, there are very few people who understand. I gave all my life for my Work, but the result from other people in general was not good and that is why I think it is not necessary for those few to sacrifice their lives here… All the same, I cannot throw away all my Work…. In two weeks, I will begin a new work…. Again, I repeat that the Institute is closed.”
Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, Thomas and Olga de Hartmann.
Over the next eight years, he would write a legominism—All and Everything, ten books in three series—and announce them with an appeal to contemporary humanity. Having completed the First and Second Series, Mr. Gurdjieff visited New York and broke up what remained of the American branch of the Institute, telling its members that the way in which they had been attempting the Work was incomplete and had made them, “candidate[s] for the madhouse.”
With the publishing of The Herald of Coming Good in 1933, Gurdjieff elucidated that all the prior work at the Institute had been both experimental and preparatory, and that his pupils had unknowingly served as the necessary objects of these observations and investigations.
“I needed rats for my experiments.” – Gurdjieff speaking to Nott, Journey Through This World, C.S. Nott
“As I was obliged to address this first circular letter principally to people who have already come into direct relation to me, I should like to profit by this opportunity and to express in conclusion in the name of future generations as well as personally my sincere gratitude to those of the people coming into contact with me during the twenty-year-period of life mentioned in the “Herald-Of-Coming-Good”, who have through many years—without their knowledge—served me as objects of my observations and investigations of the processes going on in them of crystallisation and decrystallisation of those psychic factors, the transformation of which for the acquiring of subjectivised manifestation demands a comparatively lengthy period.”
Herald of Coming Good, p. 81-82
This must have come as a shock to his former pupils, especially his most well-known pupil, P.D. Ouspensky, who had broken off with his teacher and founded his own school on these experimental and preparatory fragments of the teaching. Nevertheless, Mr. Gurdjieff welcomed his prior students to join with him, “together with others upon the true path….of attaining — by the help of my detailed and written explanations — to real Being.” (Herald of Coming Good, p. 81)
Necessary for this new work is a familiarity with Gurdjieff’s legominism, starting with the first series, An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, also known as Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, as well as his subsequent second and third series, Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I AM’.
“This benevolent advice of mine to you Americans, composing in the given case this group, and who became, thanks to a series of accidentally arranged circumstances of life, my nearest essential friends, consists in indicating the categorical necessity that each of you should cease entirely, at least for three months, the reading of your newspapers and magazines, and during this time should become as well acquainted as possible with the contents of all three books of the first series of my writings entitled An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. “
“An acquaintance with the contents of these books is quite indispensable for each of you, chiefly in order to obtain directly or indirectly information elucidated from all sides regarding all those definite notions upon which will be based and from which will logically derive all the problems which are pursued for practical attainments. It was just for this purpose that your group was organized and is now reorganized to consist of people who have more or less cognized the absurdity of our ordinary life and who, although you have not yet sensed it with all your Being but are seriously striving to take in what you have cognized, are continuing to learn as many aspects of the objective truth as possible so as to determine, in accordance with this, your own real individuality, in order to manifest afterwards in everything in a way corresponding to a Godlike creature. “
Third Series, p. 103
In his writings, we learn the chief problems for humanity are the crystallized consequences of the properties of the maleficent organ Kundabuffer, which arrest human development, and the abnormal conditions of ordinary being-existence established by humans themselves, in a mutually reinforcing cycle of suggestibility, self-calming, slavery, and war.
The Crystallized Consequences
Gurdjieff’s message is one of salvation — that humans can be saved through the process of decrystallizing the consequences of the maleficent organ Kundabuffer, by means of awakening to Objective Conscience, located in their so-called subconscious, and merging it with their ordinary waking consciousness. The method is individual initiation, one working directly with a teacher, first gaining a thorough theoretical knowledge of one’s condition, followed by a direct experiential understanding of Objective Conscience. Initiate to initiate, this method is repeated, growing in influence on humanity from a qualitatively developing center.
The Abnormal Conditions
Something is very wrong with the world. As a species, we seem to have a great deal of potential that lies forever just out of reach. Our powers of intellect have allowed us to shape and reshape the physical world, producing new technical marvels daily. And yet, the Industrial Revolution, which promised an end to our toil, climaxed in two brutal world wars and the construction of weapons capable of annihilating humanity altogether. The dawn of the Information Age sees hundreds of millions in the West addicted to pornography, suffering mental illness, and losing confidence in government, media, and most of our civil institutions in general. There are those who claim things have never been better, but they hail exclusively from the wealthiest parts of prosperous developed nations, and their comfort comes at the expense of billions who are subject to grinding poverty and violence, and to the detriment of the Earth’s very ecosystems. Every attempt to address these problems seems to result in unintended consequences and more problems.
The Work is known as “inner work on self,” and it is, but it is also meant to have an impact on the world.
The Ashiata Shiemash cycle gives us an idea of how this is supposed to work. Work-on-self produces a core in man. As he decrystallizes the consequences and uncovers Objective Conscience, he acquires a measure of real Being. He emanates a wave of energy. A small group of men working in this way can then form a nucleus of normal being existence. They engage in projects in the world at large, building institutions, providing services, conducting research, gathering new initiates. Their interface with the outer world has an effect on the circle of humanity around them. A wave of normalizing influence spreads outward like ripples in a pond. The local abnormal conditions of being-existence begin to become more normal. As they do so, more people become available who have the potential to approach the Work. A human-scale correspondence of the Trogoautoegocrat begins to operate: the center emanating higher influences outward, the outer returning human material to the center.
We learn to interact with each other normally – normally in the sense of the greater Megalocosmos: the way normal three-brained beings do. Just among ourselves, we create a bubble of normal conditions of external being-existence. The circle of people just outside our bubble see it, sense it. That circle just outside our own normalizes a little. We begin to send out this wave of normality. And as the circle just outside of ours normalizes a little, it becomes fertile ground to provide human material to feed back into the center.
How is the Work, if it can be called that, being carried on today?
Today, Gurdjieff’s writings are not treated as the primary source of his own teaching. Instead, they are diminished, treated merely as a matter of personal taste, or dismissed entirely as too difficult and unnecessary. Instead, secondary sources are put in its place, the most prominent of them consisting of material only from the early experimental and preparatory period of the work.
And instead of individual initiation leading to higher levels of being, in its place are group gatherings—“work weekends”, retreats, seminars, weekly meetings, etc.—and a focus on exercises and tasks intended for preparation only, leading students in a never-ending circle and never reaching maturity.
Finally, we do not see the present organizations serving as a growing influence on humanity as they should be. What we commonly think of as “The Way To Do The Work” was actually Gurdjieff conducting sets of experiments. Just like the heroes of the Tales, Gurdjieff took a heuristic approach of entering a situation, testing himself and other people, studying the situation to come up with various conclusions. The real Work of the Work presented in the Tales doesn’t look like people sitting around expanding their consciousness for its own sake. It isn’t limited to closed groups doing Movements and raking leaves. Beelzebub praises all kinds of research, the application of Cosmic laws to all fields of human understanding.
Taking Gurdjieff seriously doesn’t mean assuming that what he did is impossible for us; it means taking the example he set seriously enough to attempt to carry it forward as best we can. It means taking the principles he set forth seriously while actively experimenting to discover the best practical methods. This is a line between rebellion and conformity, between wiseacreing on one hand and Gurdjieff-as-dogma on the other. We are told in Fragments that the Work takes no one form, but rather takes the form necessary to each situation, and yet people have tended to fixate on one model or another depending on their lineage of their teacher. Things begin to calcify and die. The Work of the Work must be actively creating the Work from the understanding Mr. Gurdjieff has made available to us.